Inspirational Lancashire stammer activist Jack Dinsley: 'Having a speech impediment can be heart-breaking, but it shouldn't hold you back'
What do Sir Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Nicole Kidman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Alan Turing all have in common? A clue: it's a feature shared by Joe Biden, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Marilyn Monroe, and Tiger Woods, as well. Luminaries from the worlds of politics, music, film, mathematics, theatre, and sport all. And they're linked by one thing.
All of them were born with a stammer.
A common neurological condition, stammering affects around one in every 100 people globally, including Kirkham-born journalist, TV runner, and campaigner Jack Dinsley. Diagnosed with a stammer at five, Jack was unable to access speech therapy as a child. One parents' evening, a teacher even told his mother that he would not succeed in life due to his stammer.
Thankfully, Jack has made a habit of proving such misinformed opinions wrong.
"Growing up with a stammer was obviously very difficult," says Jack. "I couldn't even say my last name growing up. Imagine having a new teacher at school or trying to introduce yourself to a new friend and not being able to say your name. I still struggle to say my last name now and I think that's sad. Being able to say your name should be a given but for me it wasn't.
"People take speech for granted every single day and having a speech impediment can be heart-breaking because you're unable to say what's on your mind," he adds. "School was hard because the education around speech impediments just wasn't there. It was difficult to have teachers isolate me and not pick me to answer questions in class because of my speech.
"Small things like that build up, especially during your school years, which form you as a person," Jack, now 22, says. "I recently met up with a friend who I hadn't seen since Year 11 and I asked him if he realised I had a stammer at school. He said he knew I mumbled and that there were certain words I didn't say, but that he didn't know why.
"And, to be honest, at that age, neither did I."
Two episodes during his education stand out for Jack as crucial. The first came in Year 5 when he encountered an inspirational teacher who had herself grown up with a stammer and who could therefore empathise and offer that most crucial and life-changing of commodities: support. Having previously grappled with his speech impediment alone, Jack now had an ally.
"A stammer can hold you back and it wasn't until Year 5 that someone taught me to embrace who I was by helping me with things like breathing techniques," says Jack. "Suddenly, my school reports mention how much better my speech got and how much more confident I was. That was down to having someone understanding what I was going through.
"I saw that teacher again in 2019 and it hit me just how much work I'd done and how far I'd come," he adds. "Having a role model like her makes me reflect on how lucky I was because she could relate to me. Having a stammer isn't life-threatening or anything, but it can affect you deeply and having her as a teacher before going off to high school really helped me."
With high school came a raft of life's other travails. "High school was tough," explains Jack. "It can be a lot for anyone to cope with but, on top of my stammer, I was dealing with my sexuality, GCSEs, A levels, and being head boy. There was just a lot going on - a lot of pressure - and you can only take on so much. By college, my stammer reached an all-time low."
Then came the second crucial episode: seeking speech and language therapy in Year 12. "I took it upon myself to seek out speech and language therapy, which really helped because I had an hour each week to talk to someone who cared about my stammer," says Jack. "It was like counselling. I learned that speech impediment shouldn’t hold you back.
"The only thing holding you back is society," he adds. "I reconnected with my old speech and language therapist in lockdown and she said how great it was to see how far I'd come since 2017, which made me realise how recent all that was. She said she could see how my improved sense of self-belief had stopped me from holding myself back.
"And that's the motivation behind the Be Kind Stammer campaign."
During the second year of his journalism degree at the University of Central Lancashire, Jack realised how little awareness there was of stammering in mainstream education and the cultural zeitgeist. Resolving to do something about it, he set up the Be Kind Stammer campaign in January 2020 to raise awareness and express solidarity in rooting out the stigma.
"There was a gap in the curriculum to teach children about speech impediments to remove that stigma so I've been working with another speech and language therapist to make sure that schools cover it," Jack explains. "One lesson can change lives: an hour discussing speech impediments and what they are would make a massive difference. It normalises it.
"It's been a really good year for the Be Kind Stammer campaign," he adds. "To get Hensall and Michael Bailey Estate Agent on as sponsors is great because it shows how they believe in the work that I'm doing and that other people are recognising how important awareness is. That support also allows me to go around the country to different schools, colleges, and universities."
Over the past two years, Jack has been busy. When he's not doing the day job - which has involved working as a runner for the BBC on shows such as Newsbeat and kids' programming - he's been travelling the country, speaking at schools, colleges, and universities to raise awareness of stammering through the Be Kind Stammer campaign.
Last year, he won the Diana Award, which honours young people who work to improve the lives of others; appeared on numerous international panels to discuss stammering advocacy; and was recently named as a finalist in the National Diversity Awards, the winners of which are announced next month.
"When lockdown came, I knew there’d be so many kids who’d need us," Jack told me during a previous conversation last year regarding Be Kind Stammer's work. "Working with kids has been brilliant; it’s been phenomenal to get messages from strangers about how we’ve helped. It's just amazing.
“People are still being bullied because of their stammer and that’s embarrassing," he adds. "This interview shouldn’t really need to happen, but people sometimes aren’t kind, which is really sad. Times need to change and there’s nothing special about me apart from the fact that I want to make that change. All we need now is the exposure."
Speaking of exposure, a certain event last Autumn certainly brought a smile to Jack's face: Ed Sheeran, who himself grew up with a stammer, read 'I Talk Like a River' on CBeebies Bedtime Stories, sharing a story about a boy with a stammer with countless children across the UK. "I hope the story helps inspire and support other children who stutter," Sheeran said.
"Here was Ed Sheeran - a man who has as many number one records as he has - talking openly about his stammer," says Jack. "It was just brilliant because it showed how perfectly normal having a stammer is."